Thursday, September 29, 2011

The iPad Information Diet

Like most programmers, I've struggled for years to pry myself away from distractions. As engineers, we're in the precarious situation where the tool we use to build things can also be used to spend countless hours consuming information. And boy, do we love our information, us nerds. The result? "That code is compiling, I'll just check Hacker News real quick." Oops, game over.

I've tried all sorts of things to curb random web surfing, but nothing ever stuck. The problem has always been the same as with any addiction: going cold turkey doesn't work. There are countless number of tools to turn off, block, ration, or measure web surfing to help you cope, but they sit on my machine installed but never used. As soon as you slip a little, you're fully back in again. I needed something that was high impact enough that it would make a difference, but low impact enough that it'd stick.

Introducing the iPad Information Diet. The goal: turn your computer back into a workstation, so you always are using it to Get Shit Done (TM). I've been doing this new technique for a week and it seems to be working. I'm getting more done for work, reading books (remember those?), going outside, and relaxing instead of surfing the web when I shouldn't be.

What you'll need:
  • Your computer
  • A text editor
  • An iPad (or tablet computer, I guess)
  • A little willpower

Step 1: Make your computer a computer again.

This is simple. You want to make it so your internet acts similar to how it did 10 years ago. Block everything you think that will distract you. How? I did it by dropping in the following hosts file into /etc/hosts and restarting my browsers:

Boom. Welcome back to 1999, no social media, no cat videos, no news aggregators, just Google. Your poison may vary. Some sad souls might need to block Wikipedia, but I'm not quite to that point.

Step 2: Give yourself an out, you junkie.

"But Greg!" you exclaim, I need to go to Twitter and LinkedIn during my daily activities. Ok, fine. I'll do one better than that. You can surf all you want, even, but you have to do it on the iPad. Plug that sucker into your main machine, sit it right next to your keyboard on its Smart Cover (you've got one of those, right?) It's your 10-inch portal to the modern internet. Use it whenever you want.

Like this:

Step 3: Start getting shit done.

Why does this work? I've found that I still get my fix on my iPad, but the time spent tapping around there is limited. I'm not quite sure why, it's probably for a few reasons:
  • It's a little cumbersome to get around on compared to the speed of my computer I'm used to. Typing sucks.
  • I *know* I am screwing around. There's a large context switch, and I am constantly aware of the fact I am in 'break' mode, not multitasking between 'work' and 'break' like it used to feel doing both on my main machine.
  • It's off to the side, so it feels like a secondary task. I'm not letting it take over my main task, which is on my big iMac.
That's it! I've been doing this for around a week, and it's provided a nice balance for me. I still have a pulse on all the sites I usually read, but their ability to suck me away from my work has been drastically limited. I've compartmentalized the distractions into a small secondary screen. I've had no urge to back out of this setup, since there's nothing onerous about it, it's just keeping work and play separated, and making sure I don't conflate the two.